This week, vandals in Somerton struck the mikvah being built by Congregation Beth Solomon, the Northeast Philadelphia institution founded by Rabbi Solomon Isaacson. They spray-painted illegible graffiti across the facility’s Jerusalem stone facade, the only storefront at 11000 Rennard St. to be vandalized Sunday night.
The weekend prior, Keneseth Chai, a Conservative synagogue eight miles away in Tacony, discovered six damaged windows — as well as the rocks thrown from the outside — just before Shabbat evening services. That incident was the shul’s second in a month.
Are Jewish institutions in the City of Brotherly Love being specifically targeted by anti-Semites? Publicly available evidence is short on justifying a particular conclusion. While the graffiti in Somerton may resemble the flowing script of Arabic, it could just as easily be unintelligible curvy lines. And although the site of the future Community Mikvah of Philadelphia was the only location targeted in the strip mall, 16 cameras serving all of the mall’s businesses were destroyed just days before by unknown perpetrators.
Instead of being the work of haters motivated by anti-Jewish animus, perhaps instead what’s going on in Northeast Philadelphia is the product of old-fashioned American hoodlumism. Should that make us feel better? Not exactly.
It might be easy to excuse the broken windows and spray-paint as the costs of doing business in a crime-ridden metropolis, but Jewish institutions as a class were also targeted last week in a series of bomb threats lodged with 16 Jewish community centers up and down the East Coast and into the heartland. Those serving Philadelphia were spared, thank God, but not the Siegel JCC in Wilmington.
Investigators, according to the Jewish Federations of North America’s Secure Community Network, blamed the rash of threats on robocalls, but that only explains the how — not the why or the who — behind the scare. It could have been the work, like most bomb threats, of an attention-seeking sicko; but it also could have been the work of something more sinister.
That’s not to say that out of an abundance of caution, we should change the way we live our lives. On the contrary, we should continue to exercise and attend classes at our JCCs, send our children to school and attend synagogue. Vigilance, as opposed to cowering in fear, should continue to be our operative principle.
Secure Community Network Director Paul Goldenberg likewise urges life to continue as before. But he also notes “over the past 18 months an uptick in domestic terrorism.”
Why the apparent shift?
Could it be that at the same time that hateful speech typified by the last presidential campaign seemingly made it more acceptable for hate itself to be on full display, no matter the target, it also become more fashionable to direct some of that hate toward Jews? Bias crimes in New York City in the month following November’s historic election have experienced a 115 percent increase, according to The New York Observer. Jews were targeted in 24 of the 43 incidents.
It’s important to note that neither the right nor the left is immune from the anti-Jewish scourge. A planned march this month of neo-Nazis against the Jewish community in Whitefish, Mont., for instance, was cancelled only by the failure to obtain a municipal permit. And a new survey of attitudes among registered major party voters indicates an alarming decrease in the Democratic Party’s sympathy for Israel.
I suggest that we as a community should be shouldering much of the blame for the current state of affairs. Just as in Israel, where politicians in the Knesset have been known to sling the most vicious of Nazi comparisons thought unthinkable in the Western world, we as a community are not immune from the kind of rhetoric that not only poisons the well of reasonable debate, but unfairly labels others as enemies to the cause. It’s only reasonable that those outside of the Jewish community have picked up the logic, as well as the vocabulary.
On the Democratic side, much of the anti-Israel leanings among the party’s leftist core is directly attributable and sourced in well-meaning but misguided Jewish campaigns to ensure the survival of a peace process that for all intents and purposes died a long time ago.
But on the Republican side, the kind of thinking that made Israeli security alone the clarion call as well as the litmus test of acceptable views produced an environment in which it was perfectly reasonable for pro-Israel non-Jews to attack the “Jewish thinking” of the leftist peace camp.
Just as we, as a community, bear some of the responsibility for the lack of the civility in the world around us, we also bear the responsibility to return civility and acceptance to the public sphere. If we, as Jews, are really being targeted, the best thing we can do is to stand up against hatred as a unified people. That doesn’t mean that we need to purify our views; it means we must purify our speech.
Ultimately, that is as Jewish an act as building a mikvah.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected].